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Poverty, Privilege, and Academic “Othering”

By Yvonne Ortiz-Prince, Program Manager, AVID for Higher Education

I hail from a long line of strong women. Born in Ponce, Puerto Rico, my maternal grandmother grew up poor and received the equivalent of a 6th grade education. In search of greater financial opportunity, my grandparents decided to move to New York. Abuelito remained temporarily with their eldest son, so he could complete the school year. Abuelita rode on a steamship with their infant and toddler sons, speaking no English. When Abuelito and my eldest uncle arrived four months later, Abuelita had secured a job as a seamstress, as well as child care and furniture, in their modest railroad apartment in the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

Born in New York, my parents are bilingually proficient and graduated from high school. An academically gifted student, my mother was encouraged to attend college by her teachers, but she dropped out during her sophomore year to get married. While business savvy, my father disliked school because he struggled with reading. As an adult, he was relieved to discover that he had a learning disability. As a young child, my mother taught me how to read, as my father worked multiple jobs for us to survive. In kindergarten, I was enrolled in a diverse, Bronx private school on a scholarship due to the low performance of my neighborhood school. A year later, at the age of six, my parents separated, and eventually, divorced. While I later attended a parochial school as a scholarship student, none of the aforementioned privileges prevented me from growing up in poverty and in an environment plagued with crack cocaine and violence.

Although my mother was able to save money to move us to the suburbs of New Jersey, we remained poor. Here, I experienced culture shock from the diversity and vibrancy of the city to roads with no sidewalks or public transportation, overt expressions of racism, and “white” people. In fact, I had never heard the term “white” as a self-description of people’s race or ethnicity. In my old Bronx neighborhood, for example, my friends were Italian, Irish, or Jewish. Until my junior year in high school, I was the only Latina, before the Espinosa sisters arrived. In New Jersey, I used “code switching” in order to find meaning and maintain dignity in a school of middle-class and wealthy white students and faculty, where people like me were either invisible or an “exception.”

When people talk about immigrants, students of color, first-generation college students, and English language learners, my family’s history and resilience are the images that come to mind. Poverty and oppression are frequently implied as either defining or irrelevant parts of one’s identity, of which there are accompanying characteristics that people choose to accept, ignore, or reject. Yet, we often fail to name and boldly act upon the choices and conditions which create and perpetuate it.

Being an academically strong student and leader, I enjoyed my high school’s most rigorous courses. I possessed a network of support, including my family, a core group of faculty, and the mothers of my two closest friends. Despite this success, it did not prevent me from being encouraged by my high school counselor to reconsider my lofty university aspirations to be a journalist or architect. Instead, he cautioned me to be “realistic” by attending a two-year institution, since I would “eventually become a single mother anyway.” This is a phenomenon that we refer to in higher education as underenrolling. It is also an example of promulgating racist and sexist beliefs to define and limit the vast potential of students. If you ask, you will find many other stories like these.

Viewing the counselor as an expert and still having deference to authority as part of my upbringing, I believed him that I could not get into a four-year institution. Had it not been for my mother, I would not have applied. There was yet another barrier to the institutions to which I aspired—the use of standardized test scores to measure students’ potential for college success. I could not afford a test prep class, and there were no AVID teachers to guide me. After two tries, my highest SAT scores were unremarkable and average. As I glared at my scores in tears, I was convinced that I needed to re-think my plans. To my mother’s credit and sheer tenacity, I applied to a few institutions, including New York University (NYU is the same institution that my mother dropped out of then went back to as an adult. She is now a graduate). My high school counselor insisted there was no way that I would get accepted. While NYU boasts high grades and test scores to be admitted, their mission includes an unwavering commitment to diversity as a private institution founded by Jewish people, who due to anti-Semitism, were not allowed to attend Ivy League institutions.

At the time, NYU did not decline a student’s admission based solely on test scores because we know from research that standardized tests are not good predictors of college success, especially for low-income students and students of color (regardless of class). Now, there is a burgeoning group of institutions, including selective ones, who have test optional admission policies.

I was accepted to NYU’s General Studies Program (GSP), now called Liberal Studies: The Core Program. At the time, I was embarrassed because I felt like I did not get in the “right” way, but it was the best thing for me. GSP had small liberal arts classes taught by full-time faculty with a student-centered commitment to teaching. The academic load was heavy, as I read about 200 pages per class period and wrote more papers than I care to recall. While the scrutiny of our work was challenging, there was an investment in our success. For example, GSP faculty didn’t return papers in class. Instead, students scheduled an appointment for faculty to discuss how to improve our writing and thinking. GSP became my AVID.

When I transitioned into NYU’s College of Arts and Sciences during junior year, my upper divisional classes were easy in comparison. My practice as an educator has been greatly influenced by my experience in GSP. Five years ago, I was asked to speak at my former high school, given my career in higher education as an educator and dean. My high school counselor retired long ago. While I do not mention him by name, I share this story with the hope that students like me remember not to let other people’s limited minds steal their joy.

Now, I am proud to be a part of AVID for Higher Education (AHE), which enhances teaching and learning for all students at 40 institutions. While the power of education can transform individuals and generations, I am not special. For many, school is not a place of affirmation, growth, and learning. A person’s race, class, address, scholarship, or acceptance to a special school/program should not determine whether they will get a quality education. There should be no “throw away” kids. If we think about education as the practice of freedom, as scholar bell hooks claims, then we have an obligation to actively challenge the academic “othering” of our students and educational practices that make people like me potentially extinct in colleges and universities.


Yvonne Ortiz-Prince brings twenty years of higher education experience, which includes both public and private colleges and universities of varying sizes at predominately white and historically African American, urban, secular, and religiously affiliated institutions. As a national Program Manager for AVID Center, Yvonne provides faculty and professional development as well as strategic planning support for higher education institutions to enhance the quality of teaching, learning, and improve student persistence. Consistent with her professional calling, Yvonne is passionate about AVID’s goal to inspire all students to succeed, matriculate, and graduate from college. 

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Reader Comments (2)

Thank you for sharing your story, Yvonne!

April 22, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterKZ

It would have been so easy for you to cave in to the pressure to underachieve. Your story is very inspiring, Yvonne. Thank you for sharing.

April 22, 2014 | Unregistered Commentermark ermi

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